The Elephant in the Room

Philadelphia Zoo officials are considering seeking new homes for their elephants after failing to raise enough money to expand their habitat.
Philadelphia Zoo officials are considering seeking new homes for their elephants after failing to raise enough money to expand their habitat. (Mike Mergen - Bloomberg News)
By Robert Strauss
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

PHILADELPHIA -- A vintage advertising poster from the mid-20th century hangs in the offices of the Philadelphia Zoo. It has a yellow background with a semi-Art Deco drawing of an elephant and says "Visit the zoo. Open every day."

Some things haven't changed at the Philadelphia Zoo, America's oldest, founded in 1874. It is still open every day and, for the time being, it still has elephants. But in Philadelphia, as in zoos around the country, the question of whether elephants should be kept at all zoos -- or maybe even any zoo -- has almost abruptly become a sensitive one.

"I can tell you that if the animal rights people had picked the elephant shrew instead of the elephant, no one would be calling me," said Mark C. Reed, the executive director of the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kan., and the head of the Elephant Task Force of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "They are a flagship animal. To some people, elephants mean Africa or Asia. I look at them as the representatives for species in the wild."

Three zoos have discontinued their elephant exhibits over the past year, and this fall the Philadelphia Zoo decided to put on hold plans to build a new and larger elephant habitat. The zoo's board decided to fund a $20 million big-cat habitat, a new aviary and an update of the children's zoo instead of a new area for the zoo's four elephants.

A protest group, Friends of the Philly Zoo Elephants, has claimed this as a victory. The group maintains that elephants are roaming and foraging animals and need more space than zoos can give them. It and other animal rights activists say that penned-in elephants tend to get diseases and injuries they would not get in the wild. The Philadelphia group is pressing the zoo to donate its elephants to a sanctuary in Tennessee.

"I know it's the right thing to do. Whether the zoo does it is a different thing," said Rowan Morrison, the spokeswoman for the group.

The organization has protested at the Amtrak station and a City Council meeting, asking people to sign petitions to move the elephants. Morrison said the group formed earlier this year after one of the elephants gored another. She said she has asked the zoo for medical reports on the elephants but has been denied them. Zoo officials have said they do not want to respond to the group, but were not reluctant to talk about the elephant issue in general.

"It is a concern for us because it brings into focus what zoos are for," said Andrew J. Baker, the zoo's senior vice president for animal programs. "If we make the decision to not have elephants here, it will be a tremendous disappointment, not only for us as zoo people, but for visitors. I can see people saying, 'How will my kid learn about elephants if he can't see them?' We would continue with our missions of education and research, but it would certainly be different here."

The elephant issue has come to the fore as zoos in Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco have discontinued their elephant exhibits in the past year. Three elephants at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo died in eight months, and two elephants died last year at the San Francisco Zoo. The zoo in chilly Detroit shipped its elephants to a sanctuary in California in the spring.

By contrast, the National Zoo in Washington plans to expand its elephant collection from four pachyderms to form a social group like those found in the wild. This will require a much larger elephant house that can accommodate an adult male elephant, according to the zoo's Web site.

"Elephants are an attraction, that is true, but the way we treat elephants in captivity has got to change," said Richard Farinato, who runs the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, a sanctuary mostly for injured or abused large animals, in Murchison, Tex., outside of Dallas, for the Humane Society of the United States. "We've been giving them discipline by complete domination and making them live without being able to roam on more than a few acres and live with wet, cold concrete under their feet. It is no wonder they have arthritic conditions after a while or gore each other.

"Some zoos are building larger areas for elephants, and that is good, but it might be best to have them all in sanctuaries," he said.

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